Cover Reveal: Fire in the Ocean

As I have mentioned before, my second novel, “Fire in the Ocean,” is coming out from Diversion Books in February 2018. Diversion’s art department came up with a spiffy new cover for “The Obsidian Mirror,” which will be re-issued along with the debut of “Fire in the Ocean”:

New cover for “The Obsidian Mirror”

“Fire in the Ocean” is the sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror,” and features the same cast of characters. New twist, though–the book is set in Hawai’i on the islands of Moloka’i and Hawai’i (the Big Island).

Why, you might ask, Hawai’i? When I wrote “The Obsidian Mirror,” I drew upon strictly New World mythologies, folk tales and traditions–Native American, MesoAmerican and Voudún, avoiding the supernatural traditions that essentially migrated to the Americas from Europe. I started it as a kind of experiment after reading one of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” novels. I just wanted to see if a fantasy could be crafted that entirely eschewed the standard fantasy tropes of caped adventurers, swords and sorcery–elves, vampires and trolls need not apply.  To my surprise, the experiment turned into a book.

Although I wanted to continue the adventures of Sierra and her friends, I didn’t want to repeat the setting, plot, or other key elements of “The Obsidian Mirror.” So I picked Hawai’i as the venue for the sequel because: 1) I love Hawai’i ; 2) Hawai’i is also “New World,” and therefore fit into the strictures I had placed on myself; 3) it was an excuse to go back to the islands to do research. (And an amazing and wonderful trip it was, as those of you who have followed my blog for a while know!)

Why Moloka’i? Well, it turns out that Moloka’i in ancient times was known as the island of sorcerers. The island has its own take on the mythology and its own unique legends. Moloka’i proved to be a rich source of information and experiences, most of which were incorporated into “Fire in the Ocean.” As for why I chose the Big Island for part of the story–you’ll have to read the book.

Diversion Books just sent me the cover design for “Fire in the Ocean.” What do you think?

Cover Design for “Fire in the Ocean”

Day 5: The Bat Tornado

Temple at Chicaana

Temple at Chicaana

We were actually scheduled to go to three Mayan ruins this day, but I wimped out after two, Chicaaná and Bécan. The third, Xpuhil (shpoo-heel), was the last and smallest, and by the middle of the afternoon, I was sweaty, tired, and not sure I’d be able to tell one from the other.

I mentioned the chaka tree yesterday. it's also called "la tourista" because of its red, peeling bark.

I mentioned the chaka tree yesterday. it’s also called “la tourista” because of its red, peeling bark.

Chicaaná, Xpuhil and Bécan were vassal cities of Calakmul, which was the big cheese in the region. As these cities are many miles apart and the jungle in those days must have been denser and more difficult to navigate back then, I asked Roberto how they traveled between cities. These cities were located many miles from Calakmul and from each other; if Calakmul didn’t have local representatives or surrogates at these cities, it would have been hard to maintain control. Roberto said they had paths between cities called sac-be—the white road. All paths and unpaved roads hereabouts are white due to the limestone that makes up the earth.

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This is one of the sleeping platforms for the elite that I mentioned in the past post. It is located in a small room in one of the palaces at Chicaana. There are two small carved faces on either side of the recess in the platform, which is speculated to be for personal possessions. The palace rooms were very small, as even the elite Maya lived mostly outdoors.

Bécan was unusual in that it had a moat surrounding the city, just like a medieval castle. There were seven entrances into the city across the moat (seven being a magical number). There were no drawbridges. Roberto said that the entrances were narrow enough that invading warriors could be picked off more or less one by one as they invaded the city but there is no evidence of invasion ever occurring at Bécan.

Temple at Becan.

Temple at Becan.

The temples here are larger than at Calakmul, and have two towers. There is a ball court at Bécan, unlike Calakmul. The ball game was central to Mayan spiritual life. It was played at least partly in tribute to Hunapu, one of the two sets of hero twins of the Popul Vuh, the Mayan origin story. Hunapu is decapitated by the lords of the underworld (Xebalba). His twin, Xbalanque (shball-ahn-kay), uses a squash as a substitute for his brother’s head, which is being used as a ball by the lords of the underworld. Xbalanque rescues the head and replaces it on his brother’s shoulders. (His brother is apparently none the worse for the wear.) Xbalanque substitutes a ball of chiclé sap for use in the ballgame. Ever after, the lords of the underworld do not receive human sacrifice, but instead must be satisfied with offerings of fragrant tree sap.

Not every Mayan city has a ball court, but the later ones do. They were not intended as a public entertainment but as a religious event, and were witnessed by priests. The captain of the winning team was decapitated as a sacrifice, and it was believed he went directly to the Mayan version of paradise. I would have been a lousy captain.

Both cities were impressive, showing increased sophistication in stone working techniques compared to Calakmul. They had attractive bas-relief carvings that are still quite crisp and clear. We went inside the palace (or one of the palaces). In the large space inside, a tiny bird was flying about from beam to beam of ironwood, a wood so hard it can last for many centuries. Roberto told us it was a red-capped manikin, and quite rare. I thought about the British birders back at the hotel, and considered walking by them, casually remarking, “…and I looked up, and there it was–a red-capped manikin!” But I didn’t.

On the other side of the palace was another long, low building. The front entrance was surrounded by elaborate carving which Roberto pointed out represented the face of a jaguar. It was so abstract that I might have thought it was just stylized patterns if he hadn’t pointed it out to me. So to enter the building was to walk into the mouth of the jaguar, and it was a statement of the king’s power. The first dynasty at Calakmul was the Bat Dynasty, but they were overtaken at some point by the Jaguars. Jaguars trump bats, I guess.

The entrance to the Jaguar Palace. The stones sticking up in front are its teetch, and you can see stylized eyes and ears to either side of the doorway.

The entrance to the Jaguar Palace. The stones sticking up in front are its teeth, and you can see the nose over the door, and eyes above that.

I have forgotten a lot of what I saw and heard of Bécan and Chicaaná because I didn’t journal every day. We were busy all the time and by the time I got some alone time, I fell into bed and slept the sleep of the dead. A lesson for future research trips not to move around so much and schedule so much. I need the writing time or it all flies away.

The night before, the hotel manager stopped by our table in the restaurant to chat and asked if we had seen the bat cave. We hadn’t heard about it and were interested, so we decided to visit it this evening, as it was our last night and the cave was an easy walk from the road. Roberto pointed out the exact location to us on the way back from the village of Xpuhil (not the ruined city), where we had stopped for sundries, so we were confident of not getting lost. Besides, there were signs with bats on them when you got close to the turnout for the cave.

A little while before sunset, we pulled into the tiny turnoff and hiked a short distance up a hill. There was an enormous hole in the earth, probably 100 yards across and 250 feet deep. The sides were sheer, and Tom, who is acrophobic, grabbed the back of my shirt every time I went near enough to the edge to actually see the cave, which was a vertical gash in the rock about 200 yards down. On the rocky overhang of the cave, I could see little brown shapes. Dead bats.

Several other people joined us, some with kids. A Canadian couple next to us set up some complicated-looking equipment. It turned out they were bat experts on vacation–a lucky turn of events for us, as they provided a lot of information. The equipment was intended to record the supersonic squeaks of the bats and identify the species. There were a number of raucous birds calling in the area, and the bat experts said they preyed on the bats. Mrs. Bat Expert perched jauntily on the edge of the chasm, making Tom nervous.

By the way, here as everywhere else we went, you are expected to take care of yourself. There are no railings separating you from the edge of the great pit in the earth–not so much as a sign. If you are careless enough to break your neck, it’s just too bad.

We all sat around chatting quietly. I flirted with someone’s baby, who was delighted with touching my hand and playing peekaboo. As twilight set in, a few bats emerged from the cave. Then more. And more. And more. Hundreds of thousands of little bats flew out, circling in a great clockwise spiral, forming a literal bat tornado. My video doesn’t do it justice, and still photos didn’t show it at all, really, but it was an awe-inspiring phenomenon. My hearing isn’t good enough to hear their calls, but the sound of those thousands upon thousands of tiny wings was like a spring breeze stirring the leaves, or the sound of a gentle rain shower.

The bats circled in their spiral for a long time, each individual rising imperceptibly higher until streams of them began to break away, veering off above our heads. Several of them flew through the trees and came quite close to us, but of course never collided. The bird noise stopped as the hunters got serious and began to go after them, but I couldn’t see them.

There was something hypnotic about that spiraling tornado of tiny bodies—enormous and overwhelming, yet delicate, gentle. We watched until the great spiraling cloud had dissipated, the bats flinging themselves on the night wind, seeking food and to avoid becoming food.

Our bat experts said there were too many species in the cave–maybe six different species or more–for the equipment to identify, but they had visually identified hoary bats and ghost bats. It was a memorable experience unlike any other, and I’m grateful for it.

Yucatan: Day of the Iguanas

Mr. and Mrs. Iguana

Mr. and Mrs. Iguana

In the remote eventuality that anyone was disappointed that I haven’t been blogging about my research trip to the Yucatán Peninsula, I apologize. We were often in areas where the Internet service couldn’t handle large files, and I wanted to be able to post photos and videos, so I decided to wait.

Why Yucatán, you may ask? Well, for reasons I can’t reveal, the third book in the series that began with “The Obsidian Mirror” has to take place in Yucatán. The second book, “Fire in the Ocean,” will be out later this year from Diversion Books, and all will be explained. Well, some of it, anyway.

Day 1: Tulum

We made our way to Tulum on the Mayan Riviera without much problem. Our rental condo is located in a large tract of land not too far from the beach, called Aldea Zama. Aledea means village in Spanish and Zama is the Quiché (Mayan) word for dawn. It is also the original name for the Mayan city in the area, which is why we are here.

We ate dinner in a very good Argentinian restaurant, came back to the condo and fell into bed.

The next morning, we woke late, as it is East Coast time here, we’re from the West Coast, and we were tired. Breakfast, continuing the international theme, was crepes. We asked the waiter how far it was to walk to the ruins. He told us to walk straight down the road we were on for about four kilometers. So off we went. And continued for a long way, walking in the late morning heat and sunshine. We didn’t have a lot of water with us, and I didn’t realize it, but I was becoming dehydrated.

About three miles or so down the road there was an entrance to the beach and my husband Tom headed off across the sand, intending to walk the rest of the way on the beach. By this time, my enthusiasm had flagged, although I did appreciate the white sand, fine as sugar, and the brilliant turquoise and indigo of the ocean. Linda asked a woman how far it was, and we learned to our surprise that not only had we been directed down the wrong road, we were many miles from our destination because there was no access to the ruins from the road we were on or the beach.

We flagged down one of the passing taxis which took us to the ruins, all of us thankful we hadn’t tried to walk it. The entrance to the ruins is reached on foot or by a little tram pulled by an old tractor, and to my relief we took the tram. Before we embarked for the ruins, we saw a performance by a team of voladores. Four men climbed to the top of a 40-foot pole, playing instruments and dressed in colorful costumes. Once they reached the platform at the top of the pole, they wound ropes around the pole. Then a fifth man climbed the pole and seated himself, playing the flute as the other four men looped ropes around their legs, turned upside down, and spiraled down the pole as the ropes unwound from the pole. Wikipedia says this is a very old tradition, starting with the ancient Maya. It has deep cultural significance, and to prevent the tradition from dying out, Mexico started a school to teach children how to become voladores (females need not apply).

There is a large outdoor market around the ruins, but we went straight on without looking at the amazing array of goods, ranging from Los Luchos masks to delicately woven hammocks that looked like lace.

When we got to the ticket line, I wasn’t feeling too well, so I sat down on a bench near the front of the line. Along came a coatimundi–a relative of the raccoon that looks sort of lemur-like. She plopped herself down right among the tourists’ feet, rolled over and proceeded to give herself a bath, licking delicately at armpits and tummy. A man standing right next to her leaned down and tried to pet her. Tourists feed coatis all the time at Tulum, so assuming the man had food, the coati lunged at his fingers. Startled, the man jerked back and dropped his bottle of beer, which smashed on the stone flooring. The coati promptly began licking up the beer as the man cleaned up the glass. When last seen, the coati was cuddling in a woman’s skirt and continuing her bath, drunk and happy.

By this time, I was beginning to wonder what was wrong with me. I felt utterly drained and frankly not very interested in touring the ruins. This is completely out of character for me, as I am interested in ancient Mayan culture and had come all the way from California just to see them. But I had no energy and was beginning to feel odd; I was getting chills despite the heat and felt slightly nauseous. I rested for a while in the shade, but the water was gone. There was no place to buy water inside the ruins. I dragged myself around the ruins anyway. I probably took more photos of the iguanas at the park than the ruins. Often, they lay sunning themselves in pairs like tiny prehistoric monsters; Mr.and Mrs. Iguana taking a sunbath. There were black iguanas, green iguanas, gray iguanas, and youngsters with stripes streaking around while the adults sunned. I finally found a place to sit and look at the ocean–narrowly missing stepping on an iguana–and stayed there until the rest of the party found me. Then all I wanted to do was leave. On the walk back to the tram I developed an aura, like the kind you get when a migraine is starting. My hips hurt in a way I have never experienced before, and I felt generally horrible.

There has to be an iguana in this photo somewhere.

There has to be an iguana in this photo somewhere.

Tom got me a huge bottle of water, and after drinking a good bit of it, the aura went away. When we got to the open-air market, Linda saw a Starbucks and wanted iced tea. I noticed a vendor with adorably embroidered children’s dresses. He wanted $25 each. I wanted to get out of there and was not interested in bargaining, so I said no thanks and walked away. By the time I got out of earshot, he was down to $5 each, but I just didn’t care. This is also totally weird for me, because I adore haggling.

We took a taxi back to the condo. By the time we got back, I felt a great deal better, had a cold shower and took a nap. Lesson learned: take lots of water!

Despite getting dehydrated, I enjoyed the day. I’m looking forward to the rest of the trip, and will be much more cautious about staying hydrated.

 

 

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Cultural Appropriation Is Not a Thing

sugar-skulls2

I have long been fascinated with other cultures, open to other traditions, and drawn to the beauty of other cultures’ art and expression. It seems to me that learning about other cultures is our best hope for creating a society that is open, tolerant, and inclusive.

Then I began hearing about “cultural appropriation.” Apparently adopting or adapting from cultures other than the culture one is born into is a huge bad thing because it demeans and commercializes the other cultures in question.

Whoa. All this time, I have been tolerating green beer, drunkenness, cries of “Kiss Me, I’m Irish,” green plastic leprechaun hats, and corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day, and I wasn’t even mildly offended. (You can travel the length and breadth of Ireland and never see corned beef and cabbage on any menu. Or on anyone’s home table, either. It’s actually something the Irish immigrants culturally appropriated from the Jewish immigrants in America. For the record, the Jews have not complained about this.)

But there’s more. How many movies, books, comics, etc. have you seen with fairies, pookah, banshees, elves, will ‘o the wisps and other culturally Irish (or Celtic) themes? A whole bunch, I bet. Do you hear Irish-American people complaining about it?

No, you do not. That’s because it doesn’t damage Irish culture for people to paint their faces green and get drunk on St. Patrick’s Day. We may laugh at the gaucherie, but that’s all.

The argument that one culture can “steal” culture from another and thereby damage it is absurd. It’s equivalent to straight conservative people claiming that gay marriage threatens the sanctity of marriage. Yeah—every one of Newt Gingrich’s three marriages was sanctified.

I recently made sugar skulls with my seven-year-old granddaughter, Lilah. Lilah is Hispanic through her father, and I thought making sugar skulls would be a wonderful way to help her celebrate her heritage. In addition to making the skulls, I told her about the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos, why they make the skulls, and the lovely tradition of picnicking in the graveyard to visit with the beloved dead and share with them the events of the past year. We posted pictures of our beautiful sugar skulls on Facebook to share our handiwork.

sugar-skulls1

I was immediately accused of cultural appropriation, with a link to an article on how us gringos/gabachos are ruining the sugar skull tradition.

Well, first of all, I don’t like being called a gringa or gabacha. It was just rude, and not a very persuasive way to get white people to read the article. While I thought the article was well written and made some good points about bad behavior on the part of some white people, I still think cultural appropriation isn’t possible, like dry water.

Second, I believe that the more people know and appreciate about each other’s cultures, the better off we will all be. Discouraging friendly interest and participation on the part of “others” is just driving the wedge deeper between us all.

And above all there is art. Artists have been influenced by other cultures for thousands of years, and the synergy between cultural traditions has resulted in work of genius and beauty. What if Picasso had not been allowed to use the rhythmically angular and abstract themes of African art in his painting? Jazz and rock and roll synergize African and European ideas of music into fantastically creative new forms. And what if no one but the English were allowed to use the cadences and flowing language of Shakespeare, who has influenced every body of literature in the world? The Art Deco movement would not have existed without the early 20th century fascination with the stylized art of ancient Egypt. This is cultural synergy, not cultural appropriation, and we would all be the poorer if it didn’t go on every day of every year. Fortunately, you can’t stifle artists for very long.

I am not, of course, condoning disrespectful and boorish behavior like dressing up in a Native American headdress, making whooping noises, calling everyone “Chief,” and saying “How.” That’s ignorance and bad manners. But it is not cultural appropriation, because Native American culture has never been harmed by this. The person who is harmed is the jackass doing it.

The bushman in Africa is your brother. The Ainu woman in northern Japan is your sister. Each of us is genetically almost identical to every other human being on earth. We have everything to gain by sharing our traditions and cultures. We have everything to lose by erecting still more barriers between people.

By the way, on St Patrick’s Day, please help yourself to the green beer and shamrock cookies. I’m good with it.

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American Folk Lore: There’s No Such Thing

Joseph Noel Paton [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Noel Paton [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I just finished reading Terry Pratchett’s “Folklore of Discworld,” co-written with folklorist Jacqueline Simpson. (Do people actually get paid for knowing about folklore? What a great job!) Pratchett and Simpson discuss the relationship between the Discworld’s traditions and those of Earth (with the conceit that folklore, tropes and memes are particles of inspiration that drift across the multiverse, so that myths of Discworld wind up here, and vice versa).

While reading (actually listening to) this book, it struck me how deeply I am attracted to the folklore of the British Isles (although this is obviously not a particularly rare trait, as evidenced by libraries full of epic fantasies, tales of witches and warlocks, dragons and cloaked heroes and faeries). Nothing entranced me more as a child than tales of banshees, pookahs, faeries, disappearing gold pieces, leprechauns, elves and pixies. As an adult, I am still entranced by Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, G.R.R. Martin, and many less well known authors who write in that tradition—whether humorous or not. It’s one of the reasons I adore Pratchett, who once remarked that he regarded folklore much as a carpenter regards trees.

Why be so attracted to the folklore of another place? I could put it down to my Scots-Irish ancestry. But I think the real explanation is that the folklore of my own time and place is sparse and rather unimaginative. Perhaps if I had grown up in Louisiana or some place with more history than California, I would have a healthy backlog of swamp critters, ghosts, haunted mansions, and eerie sightings to freshen the imagination. As it is, I am hard put to say exactly what constitutes folklore here.

Sure, we told each other the stories about the guy and girl making out in the car who hear on the radio about the escaped madman with a hook for a hand. And step on a crack, break your mother’s back. (As this never happened, I didn’t believe it for long.) But these things lacked the enchantment I found in fairy stories and old tales from Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland. Witches, warlocks and wizards. Spirit horses. Water nymphs. Faery gold. Selkies. Leaving milk out for the Good Folk. Strange dancing lights on the moors at night. The Wild Hunt. King Arthur.

An incredibly high percentage of American “folklore” has disappointingly mundane origins. Paul Bunyan and his giant blue ox, Babe, appears to have originated in the oral tradition of lumberjacks, but according to Wikipedia, was “later popularized by freelance writer William B. Laughead (1882–1958) in a 1916 promotional pamphlet for the Red River Lumber Company.” Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was originally a promotional character created for Montgomery Ward. Pecos Bill was a character created by short story writer Edward S. O’Reilly in the early 20th Century. Johnny Appleseed was a real person, John Chapman, but all he did was plant apple trees, not conjure gold and silver apples or something interesting like that. Santa Claus comes closest to having true folkloric origins, but in America, even he was largely shaped by modern forces in the form of Clement Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823:

“His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself…”

Moore changed the majesty of Father Christmas, a tall, thin gentleman wreathed with holly and robed in green, into a “right jolly old elf,” later immortalized in his modern incarnation by the Coca-Cola Corporation. Moore also invented the eight tiny reindeer, which were not found in the stable of Father Christmas.

Where’s the magic in all this? Sadly lacking, in my opinion. Our modern American monsters are the psychopaths, serial killers, stalkers of children, terrorists real and imagined, and that guy with the hook, who may be folkloric, but he’s not very magical. Our urban legends may technically be folklore, but flashing your headlights getting you in trouble with gangs, or tapeworm eggs in bubble gum, or waking up in a bath of ice with your kidneys missing falls well short of enchantment.

I will admit that we Americans have our share of cryptozoids. Probably the leading examples of this are Sasquatch (Bigfoot) and El Chupacabra (the goatsucker). El Chupa is an import from Mexico, where apparently they are so folklore-rich that some of it is oozing across the border. None of these to my knowledge is actually magic; it’s just that no one has ever proved they exist, so of course, lots of people believe in them. Here’s a map of North American cryptozoology, if you’re interested in more.

And, of course, there’s a lot of flying saucer lore. But I don’t think any of the anal probees would say that there was magic involved.

As I mentioned before, it may depend on where you grew up. In Hawaii it is clear that many ethnic Hawaiians (and also many non-ethnic Hawaiians) believe in the old lore. I met people who believe in ghosts, in Pele and other ancient gods, in Menehune, and in spirits generally, both good and evil.

Magic offers the possibility of the good and brave and clever overcoming evil or at least magical trickery, whereas our monsters are sometimes overcome by the judicial system (and sometimes not). Magic also casts a glamor over folk tales; in fact the word “glamor” used to mean magic or enchantment. Our “folk” heroes are artificially created to make money—although they are still presented to schoolchildren as though they were genuine. I suppose Pratchett would say that when people start to believe in something, it transforms that thing into folklore. But no one really believes in Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. Thank heaven, some children still believe in Santa Claus, and around a campfire at night, you can believe anything. But I still think we are a culture that is sorely deprived of a true folkloric element.

Do you agree or disagree? Did you hear a truly magical (and American) story when you were a child? Did you have a haunted house on your street where lights and music could be heard at night? Were tales of helpful pixies or harmful sprites told in your neighborhood?

I would love to hear from you if you have such stories to tell!

The Last Day on Molokai and a Return to Halawa Valley

Tom really is a hero. He agreed to drive the steep, winding, one-lane road back to Halawa Valley so that we could visit the beach there and maybe hike to the waterfalls. He surprised me–and this is after 43 years of marriage.

The drive was spectacular, and we stopped to take photos of things we remembered, but hadn’t stopped for the first time because of unfamiliarity with the road. For instance, there’s this sign:

Nene crossing sign.

Nene crossing sign.

Nene (pronounced nay-nay) are the native Hawaiian geese, and they are endangered. Sadly, we didn’t see any geese, just the sign. We also saw this, which we think is a roadside memorial, but it’s a bit different than the usual. In addition to the sun made of white coral, there were offerings:

Roadside memorial.

Roadside memorial.

There was no one waiting at the bottom of the road this time. We parked and walked down the dirt road to the beach. There is a river flowing into the sea here, and it’s  picturesque:

River at Halawa Valley.

River at Halawa Valley.

 

Beach at Halawa Valley.

Beach at Halawa Valley.

 

We picked our way along the beach, and I saw what I expected; lots of small pieces of plastic in the sand, white and blue, black and gray, yellow and red–the detritus of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, collecting on this remote beach. I began picking up the larger pieces and putting them in my pocket. by the time we left, both pockets were bulging, and my arms were full of still larger chunks, bottles, and a small section of plastic fence. Tom gently makes fun of my plastic policing, but I regard it as the little that I can do to make it better. Worth nothing in the face of the magnitude of the problem, I agree. And many of the pieces were so small as to be impossible to retrieve, reminding me of “Rumplestiltskin,” where the poor girl has to count all the grains of sand or spin straw into gold.

Some of my plastic finds. Pockets are bulging with smaller bits.

Some of my plastic finds. Pockets are bulging with smaller bits.

A Hawaiian family was picnicking on the beach. A young woman named Noni (noh-nee, means “beautiful”) was sitting on the sand, while her sister, husband and nephew were on the rocky point under the cliffs, fishing. We chatted for a while, and then her husband came back with a net bag full of ‘opihi (oh-pee-hee, limpets). We asked what they were going to do with them, and he said they were best barbecued, but could be eaten right out of the shell. Did we want to try one?

Yes, we did. He had lost his knife while prying ‘opihi off the rocks, but he used one limpet shell to dislodge the resident of another shell, and offered us some. They were rubbery, and the primary taste was a mild saltiness, but I’m sure they are delicious barbecued. This inside of the shell had a lovely iridescence, tinged with green. I washed mine out and brought it home with me.

Snack time!

Snack time!

We asked about the hike to the falls. Noni said it was really difficult, and she hadn’t done it in 20 years, so we decided to give it a miss. (Later, I learned that it takes two hours just to get there. I probably made the right decision.) After dumping my collected plastic in the trash bins provided, we got into our car and drove slowly back, taking pictures as we went.

Rainforest stream.

Rainforest stream.

Once we were back in two-lane country again, we stopped to take a picture of this:

Chicken condos.

Chicken condos.

I called it “chicken condos,” as they appear to be individual shelters for chickens or roosters. As I was taking the picture, a pack of dogs ran up to the fence and barked their heads off. A very large Hawaiian came down the drive, looking rather menacing. I waved and said I was just taking a picture of his chickens. He didn’t smile, but waved more or less amicably and went back down the drive. My guess is that he’s raising fighting cocks, which is abhorrent, but I don’t know.

The only real proof we saw that there are deer on Moloka'i.

The only real proof we saw that there are deer on Moloka’i.

We also stopped at a grove of coconut palms, right outside of Kaunakakai. This used to be a much larger grove called “the Queen’s Grove,” because it was planted for the wife of King Kamehameha V. It’s right by the beach, and the trees must be 100 feet tall, each with a cluster of coconuts clinging to the top under its fronds. There are piles of coconuts on the ground, both fresh, green ones and old, hairy ones. The top of my head began to feel peculiarly vulnerable as I imagined what a coconut would do to it after a drop of 100 feet, so I left.

The Queen's Grove.

The Queen’s Grove.

Then back to the condo. I was very behind in my journaling, so spent most of the late afternoon writing, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks nearby, and enjoying the trade winds. When we went to bed, another three-inch centipede was occupying the hallway upstairs, and I gave him the same treatment I gave Jesse the Centipede a few nights ago–a beating with my flip-flop. Neither centipede put up a fight, making me think they were unwell to begin with.

And so the journey came to an end, as all journeys must do–which is the beginning of another journey for me; writing a new novel. The entire experience was amazing. People were so helpful and kind, so willing to bring me into their lives a little bit. It was extremely touching, and I will never forget the experiences I had here. As a parting wave, here are the signs that greet new arrivals to Moloka’i, and bid departing travellers farewell:

Aloha!

Aloha!

 

Snorkeling off Molokai, Followed by Not Much

Day 14: Molokai

This was our snorkeling day, so we set our alarm. We had to be at the Kaunakakai Wharf by 6:45. We ate a quick breakfast and set out in the dark. We could see the bright lights at the tiny Molokai airport as well as the wharf as we came down the rise from the west end of the island; Molokai is only 38 miles long from the west end to the east.

I thought Tom should leave his camera in the car. It is large (especially the lenses) and heavy, and I was afraid it might get damaged or get water in it. So no pictures, but I’ll post a few photos of the kinds of fish we saw, even if they aren’t the actual fish we met.

We drove straight out onto the wharf and parked near our boat, the Coral Queen. A young Hawaiian man told us nicely not to park there or we would get a ticket. This turned out to be Gabe, the boat’s one crewman. He would take the divers down while the captain kept an eye on the snorkelers.

This was a surprise. Diving implied deep water, so I asked about it. The captain (whose name I failed to remember) said they had more than 40 different places to take people, depending on whether they had a mixed group (snorkelers and divers), or just one or the other, and of course depending on tides, currents and weather.

There were about a dozen of us. They waited a while for some latecomers who never showed, then set out along the eastern shore in the dawn light. On our way out, they pointed out a handsome white yacht moored offshore and said it was Larry Ellison’s.

The Molokaiians are very hopeful about Mr. Ellison, the fifth wealthiest man in the world, and the founder and former CEO of Oracle Corporation. As you may know, he bought the entire island of Lanai a little while ago (98% of it, anyway). The people of Lanai have been very happy with the changes he has brought to that island, and the Molokaiians are hopeful that he will buy up the now-idle holdings of the Molokai Ranch. This would certainly make a huge difference; it remains to be seen if it’s a difference the people of Molokai will like. They have a slogan here: “Don’t change Molokai, let Molokai change you.”

It was calm, quite unlike the first few days we were here. It was interesting to try to locate landmarks on shore that we had earlier seen from the road, but we never got as far as Leimana’s fishpond.

Someone asked about sharks. Gabe said they tended to see black-tipped reef sharks, white-tipped reef sharks, hammerheads, scalloped hammerheads, and tiger sharks.

Tiger shark. I mean, come on. Is this something you want to go swimming with?

Tiger shark. I mean, come on. Is this something you want to go swimming with?

I said, “I don’t mind black tips, and I have swum with them, but the others…tell me that there won’t be any sharks out there today.”

Gabe struggled with his conscience for a moment, then looked straight at me and said, “There won’t be any sharks out here today.”

Bless the boy. I am sure I would have to change my bathing suit if I saw a hammerhead. Or any other shark, for that matter.

We saw humpback whales as we chugged along. They never came very close, but we did see them spouting and breaching a little ways off.

This is a picture of a humpback whale Tom took when we went whale watching in Monterey Bay.

This is a picture of a humpback whale Tom took when we went whale watching in Monterey Bay.

Eventually, we anchored (using a special anchor to avoid damaging the coral) and the captain pointed out the area the divers would explore, and further toward shore, the snorkelers’ area. As we were preparing to go in, a manta ray swam slowly next to the boat–the first I have ever seen.

As I flapped my way to the stern in my fins, a woman in a shortie wetsuit said with surprise, “No wetsuit?” I was surprised by the question. This was Hawaii, right? Who needs a wetsuit? They had them aboard the Coral Queen, but it hadn’t occurred to me to don one. I penguined onto the platform that had been lowered from the stern and fell backward into the water. It felt fine, neither warm nor especially cool. Tom joined me and we headed out.

Molokai is surrounded by a fringe reef that extends outward from the island a long way. You could walk out a mile in some places and still be in water up to your knees. We were probably a mile and a half from shore, in water that was about 12 feet deep. There were lots of fish to gawk at–schools of goatfish and convict tangs, triggerfish, butterflyfish of several varieties, bird  and rainbow wrasses, pink and silver juvenile parrotfish, mature rainbow parrotfish (a blaze of different colors), and one humu-humu-nuku-nuku-a’pu’a’a. I am never quite content snorkeling until I see this dapper little fish with his colorful suit and enormously long name.

School of convict tangs. This really looks like what we saw.

School of convict tangs. This really looks like what we saw.

Humu-humu-nuku-nuku-apu'a'a.

Humu-humu-nuku-nuku-apu’a’a.

Longnose butterflyfish.

Longnose butterflyfish.

To my surprise, my hands began to get numb and they turned white (whiter than they usually are, that is). That had never happened before while snorkeling. I didn’t think we had been out more than a half an hour, but I told Tom I wanted to go in. He agreed and we headed back to the boat–to find that we had been out an hour and fifteen minutes, and it was time to go anyway.

It appeared that we were going to go to another spot to explore. I felt quite chilled and decided not to get back in.

I struck up a conversation with Gabe. Tom had discovered that Gabe was a third cousin to Leimana, so I mentioned this and said we had enjoyed our time with Leimana at the fishpond.

“Yeah, he’s really something, isn’t he, with his thing…” Gabe indicated the swimsuit zone.

“Malo,” I said helpfully.

“…malo, and you can see his whole butt hanging out,” said Gabe.

“Well, to give credit where credit is due,” I said, “It’s a nice butt.”

Gabe looked profoundly shocked. I guess he thought pudgy old ladies were past appreciating these things, or perhaps he had never viewed his third cousin in that light.

I went forward to sit in the sun and get warm. This felt great, and my hands got warm again. However, after a bit, I felt my Irish skin had had as much solar exposure as was wise, and went back under cover. While I was sunning, though, I saw a huge turtle swim by under the deep turquoise water. He swam slowly, balletically, and I watched him until he disappeared into the depths.

While we were waiting for the others, we chatted with the captain. He had been a “bean-counter,” his words, in Minnesota. He used to come to Hawaii on vacation, and finally realized he didn’t have to live in Minnesota.

“Why Molokai?” we asked.

“It was the last island I visited,” he said.

He bought Molokai Fish and Dive, then bought the gas station next door. (Giving us the opportunity to buy gasoline at a filling station called Fish and Dive.) We commented on the high prices in the islands. Gas in our area is now close to $2 a gallon, but in Hawaii, it is more than $4. He told us that their prices were dependent on the last tanker, and they didn’t change until the next one arrived. I noticed that Fish & Dive gas prices were identical to the one other station on Molokai, a Chevron.

The divers and snorkelers came back raving about the wonders they had seen–turtles, mantas, even a sleeping white-tipped reef shark. Someone said that the water seemed warmer at this spot, and the captain said, “Yes, it is. There are freshwater springs back at the other place that make it colder.”

I said, “It would’ve been nice of you to have mentioned that an hour ago.”

But I think staying out of the water at the second location was the right decision. After we came back, Tom and I were exhausted. We had lunch at the Kualapu’u Cookhouse, and I could hardly keep my eyes open. I had fried saimin with vegetables, which proved to also have Spam and fake crab in it. Spam, in case you aren’t aware, is a favorite here in the islands. If you are eating in an establishment frequented by locals, you will find it on the menu.

I fell asleep on the ride home, and as soon as we rinsed ourselves and our equipment, we both fell into bed and slept the sleep of the truly depleted. We awoke in the early evening, forced ourselves to cook dinner (we had purchased grass-fed beef from the Molokai Meat Cooperative), ate it, and went gratefully to bed without doing the dishes.

A Return to Molokai’s Fishponds, a 2,000 Foot Vista, and a Phallic Rock

Day 10: Moloka’i

I awoke about 6:00 am, as I have been doing for a while. It was still dark. I went downstairs to make some excellent Moloka’i-grown coffee, then began writing, trying to catch up on our adventures with Leimana. We didn’t have to be at the fishpond until noon, so there was plenty of time to write, for once.

The drive to the fishpond is about an hour. There aren’t a lot of roads on Moloka’i, and no stop lights at all. The pace of life here is relaxed, and people are patient. Vehicles always stop if you are trying to cross the road. When you pass someone on the road, you wave whether you know them or not. People always say hi when they encounter you (or aloha). When you ask for directions or information, they drop everything to attend to you. It’s very like New Zealand in that respect. Not that the people of the other Hawaiian Islands are unfriendly or rude; there’s just a lot more “aloha” on Moloka’i. (Aloha means hello and goodbye, but it also means “love.”)

We arrived a little after noon. Leimana, in malo and fishhook necklace, was at the pond waiting for us. His first lesson was a lot of Hawaiian words. I did not retain all of them, but I did get a few questions answered.

I didn’t ask these questions; Leimana never answered a direct question with a direct answer. But he inadvertently defined the difference between “mauka” and “mauna,” both of which I understood to mean mountain. As it turns out, mauna, as in Mauna Loa, the volcano, means big mountain. Mauka (as in the common usage “mauka-side,” or toward the mountains), means smaller mountain. Then there were words for successively smaller hills and mounds, which I don’t remember. Except for pu’u, meaning a small hill, but this is used for other things, as we shall see.

Leimana was writing these words in the sand with a stick. He has lovely, clear sandwriting, like a schoolteacher.

Leimana's chalkboard.

Leimana’s chalkboard.

I also had been wondering what a pi-pi-pi looked like. Pi-pi-pi means “small-small-small.” In Hawaiian, when a word is repeated, it creates an emphasis. So pi-pi-pi means extremely small. I knew they were a small mollusk that people ate. Leimana had a number of of these clinging to the walls of the fishpond. They are small black sea snails. (I told you I was nuts about shells.)

I asked about the clusters of coconuts at the fish gate. He gave me a rambling answer about coconuts symbolizing food, therefore home, therefore hospitality. I am beginning to understand that Hawaiian is a highly metaphorical language. All languages have metaphors (I think), but in Hawaiian, you might talk about the fishpond as a pu’u, small hill, because it is rounded, and because you might also call someone’s prominent belly pu’u, and the fishpond also fills the belly. Someone like me might easily misunderstand, but to a Hawaiian, it would be obvious.

Leimana demonstrates the way to place rocks for a fishpond. He says hula builds up the right muscles for this.

Leimana demonstrates the way to place rocks for a fishpond. He says hula builds up the right muscles for this.

Which means I have no hope of actually learning Hawaiian. Which is probably OK. I have promised myself for years now that the next language I learn will be Spanish, which is a much better choice in California.

Leimana also showed us some hula moves and explained what they mean. Hula that men perform is quite different from the gentle swaying of women’s hula. His movements were decisive, abrupt, masculine, conveying the blowing of wind, rough water, paddling a canoe, fighting–but nonetheless graceful. He said hula made him strong, so he could lift the rocks when repairing the fishpond. He also said hula was originally performed only by men. I asked when women started hula, but he told me to ask Auntie Opu’ulani. Another direct question successfully deflected.

Somehow, we got on the subject of the Pacific gyre, which is actually one of the reasons I’m in Hawaii. Leimana didn’t seem to know what that was, so I took his stick and illustrated how the currents in the Pacific form a gyre, an immense circular river in the sea. In this gyre, plastic has accumulated over the years from dumping, people leaving junk on beaches all over the Pacific, maritime accidents, carelessness, etc. This is all swirling around in the gyre, which is often referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Wikipedia says of its size, “Estimates of size range from 700,000 square kilometres (270,000 sq mi) (about the size of Texas) to more than 15,000,000 square kilometres (5,800,000 sq mi) (0.41% to 8.1% of the size of the Pacific Ocean), or in some media reports, up to ‘twice the size of the continental United States'”.[20]

When I first heard about this, I thought, “Someone could probably make money by scooping up the plastic and recycling it, and that would help clean it up.”

But there’s a catch. The plastic in the gyre has been broken up into tiny particles, some microscopic. It’s not as if someone can just scoop up the water bottles and sand buckets. And there are tons and tons of this stuff out there.

This enormous pile of particularized plastics is leaching chemicals into the water that are ingested or absorbed by sea life of all sorts, which means that it is coming back to us in the form of sea food. Fish and birds ingest particles, thinking they are food, which kills them.

And Hawaii is smack dab in the middle of this. There’s so much plastic out there that accretions of plastic, coral and rocks have started washing up on the once-pristine shores of the Hawaiian Islands. These have their own name, “plastiglomerates.” Kamilo Beach on the Big Island is littered with tons of garbage from the gyre because of the currents there.

I told Leimana that I wanted to use my next book to help educate people about the gyre and the  tons of plastic in the ocean.

Leimana was horrified. “What can I do?” he asked.

“Don’t use plastic,” I replied, but there’s really nothing he can do. It will take an enormous effort and a lot of ingenuity to solve this problem. People are working on it–that’s the good news. The bad news is that we use plastic in increasing amounts all the time. It’s handy, cheap, and incredibly useful, and many people can’t afford alternatives. Check out the price of a nice wooden table and chairs for your toddler and then compare that to the price of a L’il Tykes set made of plastic. Price-wise, plastic wins every time.

Explaining the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Explaining the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Leimana pointed out a large rock, standing by itself in the ocean. He called it a honu (turtle). I figured there must be a mo’olelo there, and asked about it. Leimana told me about the tragic love between a woman from Kaulapapa (the peninsula where the leper colony was and is, but this was long before), and a man from the other side of Moloka’i. They each got in a canoe and tried to meet in the middle, but the sea was too rough and they wound up drowning. He never mentioned the role that the turtle rock played in this. (I found out later from someone else, but I can’t tell you. More on that in another post.)

During the course of the conversation, we discovered that the fishpond belongs to a “rich lady.” Apparently she is fine with Leimana living there–indeed, there are other ancient fishponds quite nearby, and it is clear that he has restored, maintained and improved the pond he uses, so why would she not? He doesn’t get paid to teach the children or the groups that come through to learn from him (although donations are cheerfully accepted). He gets a bit of money from the government, and otherwise lives on fishing, taro farming, eggs from a relative that keeps chickens, and so forth. It seems to me that he is more than repaying whatever he is given by preserving his culture and teaching it to others.

The hale (traditional Hawaiian house) Leimana built at the fishpond. He has plans to thatch it.

The hale (traditional Hawaiian house) Leimana built at the fishpond. He has plans to thatch it.

We finally parted. He offered to treat us to lunch, but I was afraid he meant to spend money on us, so declined. It was long past lunchtime, so we drove to a little grocery along the highway that had a food counter. It’s definitely a local hangout, called Goods ‘n Grinds. They offered deer burgers, the first I’ve seen so far, and we have tried pretty much every restaurant on the island by now. Though half the menu on offer was burgers, they were out of burgers that day. The special of the day was beef tostadas, and we each got one. We sat at a picnic table in the shade and ate our tostadas. The young lava-lava wearer of Halawa Valley drove up in a truck and we exchanged aloha. We also saw these gorgeous birds:

Crested  cardinal.

Crested cardinal.

They look like cardinals wearing woodpecker costumes. They are, in fact, crested cardinals. I tempted them closer by throwing some tostada shell crumbs on the ground, which were also appreciated by the ubiquitous blue doves.

I wanted to see the forest park where the trail to Kalaupapa begins. We had no intention of hiking the trail, for reasons already stated, but I knew it was a forested upland area, and very different from the scrubby grasslands of the area where most of the island’s population lives. The road seems to climb gradually, but goes to about 2,000 feet above sea level, where it ends in Palau State Park. It ends for a good reason–the next step is 2,000 feet straight down.

There is an overlook at the top of the pala from which you can see Kalaupapa. It’s like being in an airplane, and you must be able to see a 100 miles or more out to sea.

Tom's view of Kaulapapa.

Tom’s view of Kaulapapa.

This is one of those things Tom doesn’t like (though that may be an understatement). I was fine with it because there was a nice, substantial rock wall separating me from the drop. Tom sat with his back against a large tree, across the path that skirted the wall and declined to come any closer. I admired the view and took pictures.

My view of Kaulapapa.

My view of Kaulapapa.

We walked back to the parking lot through the pines. The pines are unusual, with soft needles fully a foot long, giving them a “Cousin It” appearance for those who remember “The Addams Family.” I had earlier seen some coil baskets made of these needles in a gift store. I have seen pine needle baskets before and admired them, but these needles must have been particularly well-suited to basketry. The two baskets in the otherwise junky gift store were very well made and decorated with small shells. The one about the size of a hummingbird’s nest was priced at $100, so it was safe from me.

It was also cool in the forest–so cool it made me wish I had worn warmer clothes (not that I have warm clothes with me.) As a matter of fact, it has never been uncomfortably warm and is often downright cool, especially at night.

Then we went to look at the other attraction up here. It was indicated by a sign that read, “Phallic Rock.” This trail, unlike the concrete path to the edge of the pali, was unimproved and rather rough. I regretted not having changed from flip-flops into walking shoes, but managed OK. Tom, believing we were getting near the pali again, decided to wait for me on the trail, but I went to the end.

Yup, it was kind of phallic all right:

Phallic rock.

Phallic rock.

Someone had left an offering in a bowl in the rock, carved either by man or nature. The rock is sacred to the Hawaiian people, who viewed sexual mana as powerful and beautiful. Ku, the chief god, also means “erect,” in every sense of the word, including standing tall agains aggression or oppression. I often see offerings left at heiau or other sacred places.

Offering at phallic rock.

Offering at phallic rock.

However, some asshole named Jesse carved his name into this rock. I can only imagine what his punishment will be. Probably he’ll be doomed to live his entire life as a stupid person, with all rights and privileges thereto. If I had my way, the centipede I mashed the other night was named Jesse.

The rock was nowhere near the edge of the pali. I picked my way carefully down the rough trail, but Tom wasn’t interested. Tom was interested in descending to lower, flatter ground.

Then we drove back into the metropolis of Kaunakakai to get some groceries, then back to the condo. We were actually too tired to cook again and made do with cheese and crackers. I was even too tired to write!

The Precipitous Drive to Halawa Valley and Two Kupuna

Day 9: Moloka’i

In the morning I called Auntie Opu’ulani. If you recall, this is one of the people Janine, the helpful lady at the airport, had recommended I talk to. I got through to Auntie and we made arrangements to meet on Wednesday.

Then I called a boat tour place and made reservations to snorkel on Thursday. I cannot be on a tropical island and not snorkel; it would be unnatural. Molokai has a long, shallow reef surrounding it. You can get to the reef from the shore, but the snorkeling is better further out. So they say, anyway. I’ll let you know.

I had decided not to look up some of the other people Janine recommended, including Uncle Pilipo, who is a kupuna (elder) who knew a great deal about mo’olelo Moloka’i old tales of Moloka’i). This was mainly because I didn’t have Uncle Pilipo’s contact info, but also because I felt I was making good progress and didn’t want to get greedy.

Feeling pleased with these arrangements, we started up the road, heading for Halawa (hah-lava) Valley, looking for the ancient fishpond along the way. We saw a fishpond, but no sign that anyone lived nearby, so kept on going.

It became more lush as we went along, the dry, red-earth grassy areas giving way to thick stands of trees and broad-leaved tropical undergrowth. The road hugged the coast, and in places, there was little between us and the water except for rocks. Not long after the fishpond, the road became one lane, sometimes with room for another car to squeak by–and sometimes not. The road started to climb, and we began to see vistas of the ocean far beneath. We could clearly see the island of Maui across the channel.

I mentioned that Tom and I are acrophobic. But we differ in our reactions. I don’t mind hiking trails with steep drop-offs or driving roads with same. I don’t like climbing ladders, being on roofs, walking over transparent supports (you’ll never get me out on those glass platforms over the Grand Canyon), or actually being on the edge of a high cliff with no barrier between me and a five-second drop to eternity. Tom doesn’t like any of that, but he would rather drive if he is on a cliff road. He drives white-knuckled and sweating bullets, though.

So I enjoyed the drive, and Tom didn’t. He really is a hero sometimes.

There are people living out here, and even farms. The residences were scattered, but there was this tiny church along the way:

Tiny church on the road to Halawa Valley.

Tiny church on the road to Halawa Valley.

We passed this beautiful zigzag pole fence:

Zig-zag pole fence.

Zig-zag pole fence.

 

As we approached the descent into Halawa Valley, we could see two waterfalls pouring hundreds of feet down into the valley. I tried to take photos, but they were too far away. Finally, we got to to the valley floor, a rainforest jungle. There was a sort of public park building there, and then there was a dirt road to the beach.

Tom by now was quite ready to turn around and depart as fast as possible. There were three Hawai’ans sitting to one side of the road on a low rock wall. The one on the left was a heavyset fellow of middle age. The young man on the right was dressed in a short lava-lava (I don’t know what the Hawaiian word is; it’s a sort of kilt arrangement made of patterned cotton cloth), a shell necklace on a braided cord, and nothing else. The gentleman in the middle was elderly. (That means older than me. I figure he is about 76.) He wore unremarkable clothes and a faded baseball cap. He was very thin and his face under the brim of his cap was weathered. Neither Tom nor I can remember exactly what was said. I know we exchanged aloha, and I think they asked us why we were there. I responded that I was looking for mo’olelo Moloka’i.

The men to left and right looked at the man in the middle, and simultaneously said, “This is the guy you want to talk to.”

I leapt out of the car and walked up to the older man. He was shaking his head, so I said, “Come on, Uncle, please tell me some stories.” (Remember, “uncle” is respectful when speaking to someone  older or wiser than oneself. The Hawaiians have great respect for their kupunas, unlike the typical American, who sees them as old and in the way. I’m liking Hawaii better every year.) The gentleman replied that he didn’t just tell stories, I needed to make an appointment. He insisted on  this several times. I took this as a message that he took what he did extremely seriously, and he wasn’t sure that I did.

I didn’t press him, but told him I was meeting with Auntie Opu’ulani on Wednesday and snorkeling on Thursday, and leaving on Saturday, and in any case, my husband would not drive back down that road. At this point, the heavyset guy offered to drive me, which I thought was incredibly kind.

The kupuna finally asked why I wanted to know these stories. I told him I was a writer, and wanted to set my next novel in Hawaii. He asked what my last novel was about, and I tried to tell him. I found it amazingly difficult to summarize a 350-page novel, especially as I had no idea what his background was. He had as much trouble pronouncing Quetzalcoatl and Necocyaotl as I do with many Hawaiian words.

I have found that when I tell people I want to hear their stories, they are cautious. Once I say I am a writer, they open up. I am not sure why this is so.

He talked to me for quite a while about good and evil. He said everyone has capacity for both, and we each must choose which way to go. He also talked about not giving over your power to another person. He waxed so philosophical that after a while, I asked him if he was a kahuna.

“People don’t understand what kahuna means,” he told me severely. “Kahuna is an educated person. My grandfather told me we are all kahuna, just not everybody knows it. There are good kahuna and bad kahuna. You understand?”

I said I did. I hope I did. Mostly, I kept my mouth shut, and he kept talking. He often spoke in Hawaiian, which sounded to me like water running over smooth stones. Beautiful. He eventually stopped talking in abstract terms and began to tell me a story. He told it in the first person, as though he were the young boy in the tale. Seeing my puzzled expression, he said, “Now I am telling mo’olelo, you understand.” Here is the story, as much as I can recall, because I was listening, not taking notes. I have retold it, so it is in the third person:

A young boy was born in Halawa Valley, the youngest of seven siblings. He was chosen to be the cultural teacher (teacher is not the word he used, but it is close) in his family, the one who would preserve the ‘ohana’s cultural wisdom (‘ohana means family). He was not allowed to swim in the sea or go to the waterfall like his brothers and sisters and he was unhappy and thought this was unfair. One day his grandfather told him they were going to the waterfall, which is called mo’o-ula (red lizard) because a mo’o lives there. (Mo’o are mythical lizards. They were huge, and no actual beast of this sort has ever lived in the Hawaiian Islands. Some mo’o were kindly toward people–some not.) If you threw in a ti (pronounced tee) leaf in the pool beneath the fall and it sank, you were not allowed to swim in the pool because that meant the mo’o was in the pool. The boy wanted to know why they were visiting the pool, but his grandfather told him not to ask questions.

There were ti bushes that had been planted by the people all along the path, so the boy broke a leaf off as they walked. When they got to the pool under the falls, the grandfather broke off a big clump of ti leaves, fastened it to a stone, and tossed it in. “One ti leaf is not enough,” he told his grandson. The ti leaves floated around this way and that, then sank. This meant the boy could not swim because the mo’o was using the pool and anything could happen to him.

Then the kupuna began to relate things from his own life. He told me that when he was a boy, his grandfather told him that the beach at Halawa Bay was the burial ground of his ancestors. He asked a lot of questions, but his grandfather told him not to ask questions and took him to the beach (sound familiar?). The boy said he could see no graves. When the tsunami of 1946 washed out the beach, he saw the bones scattered all over the beach, uncovered by the ocean, and knew his grandfather was right.

His grandfather also took him to the falls and told him the mapmakers had made a mistake (again, no questions allowed). They called the falls red chicken falls (moa-ula) instead of mo’o-ula (red lizard). The grandfather pointed up to the falls and said, “Do you see a red chicken?” The boy did not. Then a mist came in, and his grandfather told him it was the spirits of his ancestors. When the mist cleared, the grandfather pointed again to the  top of the falls. “Look again, what do you see?” He looked again, and saw the head of a huge lizard peering over the edge.

He then told me that he had told archeologists where to find ancient remains of firepits and fishponds. The scientists dated the fishpond at 650 AD, the oldest yet found in Hawaii. It is believed that Halawa Valley is the oldest continually occupied site in the islands. I haven’t checked this, but it seems probable, if what he told me is true–and why not?

The kupuna had told us that he would need to leave soon, as he was taking his haole (pronounced how-lee, means Caucasian) son to the airport. After some time, a young, blond man came walking down the road and my kupuna told me he had to go.

I asked him what his name was.

“Uncle Pilipo,” he replied.

I stared at him. “You’re Pilipo?” I stammered. “Janine Rossa told me to find you.”

“Well, you found me!” he replied, climbed into a truck, said “Aloha,” and drove away.

Uncle Pilipo. I don't know who that woman is, but I'm starting a diet as soon as we get back.

Uncle Pilipo. I don’t know who that woman is, but I’m starting a diet as soon as we get back.

OK, there’s only 8,000 people on this island. But I was completely gob-stopped. Of all the people who might have been waiting by the roadside at a place we arbitrarily decided to visit, how likely is it that it was one of the three people I had been told to see?

While I am being woo-woo, I noticed that on the Big Island, when I told people about my experience in Kilauwea, they were quietly accepting. Here, they are skeptical, which is interesting, because Moloka’i is supposed to be the island where the magic still exists. Perhaps Pele has been gone too long from Moloka’i for people to pay much heed to her. I think most Hawaiians here are Catholic, judging by the number of Catholic churches, which, given Father Damien’s popularity, is not surprising. I don’t think they want to talk about the old gods much.

So Tom and I started back up the narrow, winding road, Tom not being interested in going to the beach or to the falls. (I was, but I understood his need to get back to nice, flat land as quickly as possible. He had sacrificed enough already.) I missed a lot of fine scenery on the way back because I was frantically typing Pilipo’s stories into my iPad. I had taken no notes at the time because I was trying to concentrate 100% on what he was saying. (It also seemed like a bad idea to ask questions given his stories.)

As we passed the ancient fishpond, I spied something that looked like an old Hawaiian hale, or house, near the pond, and some sort of palm-thatched structures tucked under the trees. There was a young woman talking to the passenger of a car that had pulled off the road. I got Tom to stop (we were at sea-level again, so no problem), and told the woman I was looking for Ray Naki.

“You found him,” she said. She pointed at a thatched structure under the trees. “He’s over there.”

I walked in as though I knew what I was doing (Tom was parking). There was a Hawaiian about my age with shoulder-length gray, curly hair, wearing a traditional loincloth (malo), a large bone fishhook like the New Zealanders make, hanging from a thick, braided cord, a bemused expression, and nothing else.

Lei-mana blowing a conch shell horn.

Lei-mana blowing a conch shell horn.

I said, “Your niece April in Captain Cook said I should look you up.”

He looked at me blankly. “Who?”

Ulp. “Are you Ray Naki?”

“Yes, that’s me. Who did you say?”

“April, April Qina. That’s her married name.”

He pondered that for a minute, then his face cleared. “Ah, ‘Apilela. That’s her name!” (‘Apelela is April in Hawaiian.)

He wanted to know why Apelela said I should see him, but I couldn’t tell him because April never told me. I just blindly did as she had suggested. I honestly never questioned why, to tell the truth, and had no particular expectations, which has been my modus operandi on this trip. I certainly was not expecting a loincloth-clad man living in a thatched hut.

Lei-mana.

Lei-mana.

Tom came in from the road, and Ray pulled three eyeshades hand-woven of palm fronds from a supporting branch of the lanai, donning one himself and offering the others to us. We put them on as directed and he invited us to sit at the picnic table.

I should describe the place before going further. The fishpond is enormous, maybe two or three hundred yards across, constructed of low lava rock walls that begin high up the beach and extend into the calm waters quite a way, making the pond more or less circular. The walls are frosted with pieces of white coral. There is a “gate” where fish can swim in or out. On either side of this gap, there are bamboo poles with clusters of coconuts. There is a similar structure on the inland side of the pond, standing in the sand. A small, white power boat floating on the waters of the pond was anchored to the shore by three rocks.

When I walked into this establishment, I was greeted by a pack of medium-sized, short-haired, golden-brown dogs, many with ridged fur down their spines. There were also a couple of vaguely chihuahua-looking dogs, though they were the same color as the others.

Dogs

They greeted me by licking my hands and crowding around my knees. I wondered if they were related to the “poi dogs” the ancient Hawaiians used for food. I looked this up and found that the poi dog is extinct. The Hawaiians fed them on poi, the mashed and cooked root of the taro plant, which is used as a condiment here and is pretty much pure starch. So the poi dogs didn’t chew tough food and their skulls became deformed through muscle disuse, becoming flattened. They were described as fat, stupid and slow. Often when a child was born, he was given a poi dog. If the child died in infancy, the dog was killed and buried with it. If the child survived infancy, the dog’s teeth were pulled and fashioned into a protective necklace for the child. So the poi dogs are probably better off extinct, poor things.

There was a frame for a traditional hale, but it was unthatched at present. The kitchen–a camp stove and picnic table–was set up under a thatched lanai (and by “lanai,” I mean nothing fancier than a shelter). There was an old international cargo container with doors cut into it next to the lanai, apparently to provide protection from rain and wind. The lanai was hung with fishing nets and other paraphernalia. (But Ray has a cell phone. He likes to play the unsophisticated “native,” I think, but he is a sharp old fox.)

A couple of small children, including a fat baby in diapers, were wandering around. They were some of Ray’s five grandchildren. He lives with his wife, daughter and son, grandchildren, and I don’t know who else. The two-year-old went down to the fishpond with me and dragged away the stones that secured the boat anchor. I think he wanted to show off the anchor to me. His grandfather roared at him in Hawaiian, and I didn’t need a translation.

Ray’s Hawaiian name is Lei-mana, the powerful lei, so I will call him that. He is the brown of medium-roast coffee beans, big-bellied, but firm. Because of his attire, I was also able to observe that he has firm, smooth buttocks.

Lei-mana used to be a construction worker, but gave it up to pursue a more or less traditional lifestyle at the fishpond. He fishes the pond and his ‘ohana has a taro patch at Halawa Valley. He teaches school children about how their ancestors lived–also hula and the Hawaiian language. I gathered that in addition to school field trips, he has visitors from other areas of Polynesia, like New Zealand. A Maori from New Zealand gave him the fishhook necklace he was wearing.

Conversation with Lei-mana was somewhat awkward. He has a way of falling into silence for a while, then coming at you with questions. Yet he frequently did not answer my questions, greeting them with thoughtful silence. Then he would start talking about something unrelated. As it was a disjointed method of talking and I wasn’t taking notes, I have noted most of what I remember already.

I gave Lei-mana April’s phone number and took his address so that I could send him a copy of “The Obsidian Mirror” (I have made this offer to anyone who has helped me on this trip). I also offered him some money (as I did Uncle Pilipo), because Janine advised me to do so.

“Don’t think they will be offended,” she told me. “They won’t be.” So far, utterly true.

Lei-mana asked if we wanted to return the next day and learn what he teaches. We agreed to come back at noon the following day. I leaned forward to kiss his cheek as Janine had instructed me, and then Lei-mana said, “Here is the old Hawaiian way to kiss, nose to nose and forehead to forehead,” and proceeded to do just that. We removed our palm shades, but Lei-mana insisted they were gifts, so we took them.

Tom, me, and Lei-mana.

Tom, me, and Lei-mana.

I was a bit overwhelmed at this point. We stopped for a very late lunch at Paddler’s Inn. We ordered the day’s special, Chinese chicken salad, which bore no resemblance to any dish by that name we had ever eaten previously, and I had another excellent daiquiri. Then we stopped in town for dinner makings and went home. I wrote furiously all through lunch, then started writing again when we got back to Paniolo Hale. We ate leftovers for dinner because we were tired, and then I wrote some more until about 10:30 pm. I was making lots of mistakes by that time, though I had only journaled through Uncle Pilipo, so I joined Tom in the enormous humid marshmallow of a bed and dropped into a sound sleep.

Sleepy Moloka’i Sunday and Random Observations

Day 8: Molokai

I forgot to mention that April, of Ma’s Kava in Kona, had grown up on Molokai. She told us we should visit her Uncle Ray Naki at the fishponds on the way to Halawa Valley, an area we planned to visit anyway. Jody, one of the sellers at the farmer’s market in Kaunakakai, knew Ray and described his house to us. (She was selling trinkets to fund her son’s trip to New Zealand with his singing group. I bought a kukui nut and shell lei from her to help out.)

Me modeling the kukui nut and shell lei.

Me modeling the kukui nut and shell lei.

Of course, April also told us that the people here were kind of stand-offish. If these people are stand-offish, I am a Ford Agency fashion model. Everyone we talk to is chatty and helpful. Did I mention chatty?

We decided to try to find Uncle Ray, even though all the information we had by way of finding him is that he lived next to the ancient fishpond on the road to Halewa Valley. The night before, I had called Auntie Opu’ulani (“Heavenly House”), a kupuna (elder) who is an expert on mo’olelo Molokai (legends of Moloakai). I left a message, so I thought I would wait a bit to see if she would call back. So I had sort of planned to seek out Uncle Ray today, or at least drive up there and see what could be seen. We started out at dawn going back to Popohaku Beach, but it was readily apparent that the swell had not subsided, so we turned around and came back for breakfast. I cut up a pineapple and made Molokai coffee, then started writing, trying to catch up on my journal.

I caught up, all right. At about 2:00 pm or so.

The stores and other businesses are all closed today. Tom and I walked down to Make Horse Beach. I encountered a Swiss man, Olivier, who speaks about five languages, and I got to practice my French for a while.

The red path to Maka Horse Beach.

The red path to Maka Horse Beach.

I noticed a lot more shells on Make Horse. They were small, but they augured greater success than Popohaku. I determined to come back in the morning. Make Horse is a lovely little beach that must be a lot of fun when the surf isn’t so high. There are lots of tide pools, but I didn’t get anywhere near them.

 

Make Horse Beach. Credit, as with almost all photos because my iPhone is dead, to Tom Keenan.

Make Horse Beach. Credit, as with almost all photos because my iPhone is dead, to Tom Keenan.

Then we came back to the condo. I located the barbecue facilities, then we made teriyaki steak for dinner with rice and asparagus that was actually not terribly expensive.

When I went upstairs to the bathroom after dinner, I left my flip-flops downstairs because Scott (one of the managers) had requested it. They had just installed new carpet on the stairs and second level, and didn’t want it tracked up with the red dirt of the island. When I turned on the light in the bathroom, I immediately saw a three-inch-long centipede, curved into a graceful S-shape on the bathmat.

Wildflowers on the path to Maka Horse.

Wildflowers on the path to Maka Horse.

This was no skinny, mainland-type centipede. It was hefty, with nasty-looking pointy things at front and rear.

I respect nature, but there is a limit. I went down to get my flip-flops, proceeded to beat the damned thing to a pulp, and decided there was no way I was going to walk around barefoot from now on, Scott or no Scott.

Here are a few random comments:

There are deer on Molokai. In 1867, speckled Indian deer were delivered to Molokai at the request of King Kamehameha V. They were released on the island and flourished. There are various signs of them, though I have yet to see one alive. Misaki’s Market, one of the two grocery stores in Kaunakakai, has deer heads mounted on supports on every aisle. We passed a fence completed covered with antlers. We haven’t yet seen deer burgers on a menu though. Much less venison.

The Humane Society consists of two small storage shipping containers with a pen in between. I haven’t seen any animals there, but I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

You can see three other islands from Molokai: Oahu, Lanai and Maui. There is an outrigger race every year from Molokai to Waikiki. Given that this is 38+ miles across very rough water, this is a serious athletic event.

There are huge, black moths here with wingspans of five or six inches. Gorgeous. We will (Tom will) try to get a picture.

The fishponds on Molokai are the oldest in the islands. More on these later. They are constructed of lava rock (not that there is any other kind) walls out into the water where the wave action is low. There is usually a gate where fish can swim in. They could swim out again if they chose, but perhaps they were fed inside the pond, keeping them around. I will find out more tomorrow.

Because Tom Keenan is an amazing photographer!

Because Tom Keenan is an amazing photographer!